Half of stu­dents should be de­gree ap­pren­tices, ar­gues Tory MP

Robert Hal­fon, chair of ed­u­ca­tion com­mit­tee, calls for ‘rad­i­cal look at what univer­sity is for’. John Mor­gan writes

THE (Times Higher Education) - - NEWS - John.mor­gan@timeshigh­ere­d­u­ca­tion.com

The new chair of the UK’s House of Com­mons ed­u­ca­tion com­mit­tee wants to see 50 per cent of those go­ing into higher ed­u­ca­tion tak­ing de­gree ap­pren­tice­ships and has called for “a rad­i­cal look at what univer­sity is for”, so fund­ing in­cen­tivises the study of sub­jects that ad­dress the UK’s “skills deficits”.

Con­ser­va­tive MP Robert Hal­fon (pic­tured below) is po­ten­tially a highly in­flu­en­tial fig­ure for the sec­tor, given his an­nounce­ment in Septem­ber that the com­mit­tee’s open­ing in­quiry un­der his chair­man­ship would be into “value for money in higher ed­u­ca­tion”.

He spoke to Times Higher Ed­u­ca­tion in his of­fice at the Houses of Par­lia­ment, where the walls and book­shelves dis­play some of his pre­oc­cu­pa­tions and mo­ti­va­tions. There are sev­eral books on free mar­ket, in­di­vid­u­al­ist thinker Ayn Rand; black and white pic­tures of Mr Hal­fon’s Es­sex con­stituency of Har­low be­fore its rapid post-war growth into a work­ing-class new town; and a poster de­pict­ing Mr Hal­fon’s trea­sured “ed­u­ca­tion lad­der of op­por­tu­nity” vi­sion.

“If you give peo­ple the skills, ed­u­ca­tion and train­ing they need, they get job se­cu­rity and pros­per­ity for the fu­ture,” Mr Hal­fon said of that vi­sion.

So, what ev­i­dence is there of a prob­lem with value for money in English higher ed­u­ca­tion? “My pas­sion is so­cial jus­tice,” Mr Hal­fon said. “I wel­come the fact that more dis­ad­van­taged peo­ple are go­ing to univer­sity than ever be­fore. But too many of them are not go­ing to the red­brick uni­ver­si­ties, or Rus­sell Group [uni­ver­si­ties]… Also too many grad­u­ates are go­ing to uni­ver­si­ties and not com­ing out with highly skilled and well-paid jobs. The stats are be­gin­ning to show that.”

Mr Hal­fon con­tin­ued: “The pur­pose of our com­mit­tee of in­quiry is to ex­am­ine the ev­i­dence on this and to prove what I’m say­ing… not just me, but oth­ers [too].” Mr Hal­fon, an ally of for­mer chan­cel­lor George Os­borne, was sacked as ap­pren­tice­ships and skills min­is­ter by Theresa May in June. For some time, he has made waves with calls for the Con­ser­va­tives to re­con­nect with work­ing-class vot­ers, in­clud­ing by chang­ing their name to “the work­ers’ party” and us­ing the lad­der (rep­re­sent­ing op­por­tu­nity) as a logo. On higher ed­u­ca­tion and em­ploy­a­bil­ity, he said that there was a need for “a rad­i­cal look at what univer­sity is for”. “There is a view out there, held by the Univer­sity of Ox­ford vice-chan­cel­lor, that univer­sity is about ex­pe­ri­ence,” he said. That is a ref­er­ence to Louise Richard­son, who in her speech to this year’s THE World Aca­demic Sum­mit, crit­i­cised “ab­so­lutely ex­tra­or­di­nary” com­ments by Mr Hal­fon about em­ploy­a­bil­ity be­ing the pur­pose of higher ed­u­ca­tion and ac­cused him of hav­ing “com­pletely missed the point of go­ing to univer­sity”.

Mr Hal­fon re­sponded: “She [Pro­fes­sor Richard­son] said that univer­sity is about the ex­pe­ri­ence. To me, if some­one wants an ex­pe­ri­ence they can go to Al­ton Tow­ers.”

While ac­knowl­edg­ing that “univer­sity must be about in­tel­lec­tual de­vel­op­ment” – Mr Hal­fon re­ferred to his time study­ing pol­i­tics at the Univer­sity of Ex­eter as “the best time of my life” – he re­it­er­ated his be­lief “that the whole pur­pose of go­ing to univer­sity is to get a very highly skilled and bet­ter paid job”.

He lamented the UK’s per­for­mance on skills com­pared with in­ter­na­tional peers and said that it was fail­ing to pre­pare for the “fourth in­dus­trial rev­o­lu­tion” – po­ten­tial devel­op­ments in au­to­ma­tion and ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence that some be­lieve will trans­form the world of work.

“To me, the univer­sity sys­tem must be regeared,” said Mr Hal­fon. He con­tin­ued: “I think the money, the in­cen­tives, should pre­dom­i­nantly be to fill where we have deficits; whether it be health­care, whether it be sci­ence – women in sci­ence and en­gi­neer­ing par­tic­u­larly – whether it is com­put­ing and cod­ing, ro­bot­ics; wher­ever we have a skills deficit, what­ever we need for the fu­ture.” He sug­gested that this could be achieved via de­gree ap­pren­tice­ships.

“This is not a tar­get, but my dream is you would trans­form our skills base by hav­ing 50 per cent of peo­ple who go and do de­grees that would be do­ing de­gree ap­pren­tice­ships,” Mr Hal­fon said.

Along­side the ed­u­ca­tion com­mit­tee’s re­view, Ms May has pledged “ma­jor re­view of univer­sity fund­ing”. Asked about the Con­ser­va­tive po­si­tion on tu­ition fees, Mr Hal­fon said: “If I had been the prime min­is­ter [at the elec­tion], I would have got up and said, ‘we will look at tu­ition fees and eas­ing the in­ter­est rates, or what­ever it may be; how­ever, it’s im­pos­si­ble for the coun­try to af­ford [Labour’s pol­icy to scrap fees] and we’ve got to be fair to stu­dents, fair to the tax­payer. How­ever, what we’re go­ing to do is some­thing very dif­fer­ent, we’re go­ing to of­fer ev­ery young per­son from the age of 16, if they want it, a state-of-the-art, qual­ity ap­pren­tice­ship from level two right up to de­gree level’.”

Such a pledge would “in­vest many bil­lions in de­gree-level ap­pren­tice­ships and build a skills na­tion”, of­fer­ing stu­dents the chance to “earn while you learn and have no debt” and be “vir­tu­ally guar­an­teed a job at the end of it”, he added.

Skills test Robert Hal­fon be­lieves that the ‘whole pur­pose of univer­sity is to get a very highly skilled and bet­ter paid job’

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